You Participate In Your Sanctification As The Direct Object

My good friends over at New Reformation Press have this wonderful article on Sanctification titled "You Participate In Your Sanctification As The Direct Object" by Steve B.    

Before you read it though, I want to point out two sections in this article.  The first part is the section that talks about sanctification being used in the passive voice in the New Testament  (To learn more about the Greek's passive voice continue to read below or CLICK HERE to be redirected to a helpful handout).  The second section is the part where 'cyclical sanctification' is discussed.  I believe this is most helpful in seeing sanctification not as a movement of the old Adam, but a continuous event of death and resurrection.    

Pastor Matt Richard

Paul boasted about his weaknesses for the purpose of pointing to Christ. He took on the appellations and epithets of his opponents as badges of honor. That’s what we’re doing with our ‘Weak On Sanctification’ T-Shirt. It is a common complaint against Lutherans coming from outside the Lutheran circle; that we are uncomfortable talking about ourselves and our ‘growth in grace’ and shy away from exhortations to holy living for fear that someone might be led to believe they could work their way into heaven.

Also, more importantly, because in the equation of who does what (as with Justification) we bring our sin and brokenness while God brings everything else: in this case, His Spirit as a deposit to comfort us, set us apart and consecrate us. He also provides the good works, prepared beforehand, for us to do (Phil. 2:12-13, Eph. 2:8-10).

And we Lutherans do work this out with fear and trembling as St. Paul instructs; we’re awed by the fact that Jesus obeyed the law for us and died the death we deserved, transferring His law-keeping to us as a gift by declaration (Justification), as if we had kept the whole of the law ourselves. Additionally, He has also sanctified us (set us apart from the world while leaving us in it) by His Spirit for His purpose: our participation with Him in a massive rescue mission behind enemy lines.

So, just what is Sanctification and why is everyone so ‘worked-up’ about it?

We start with the Old Testament idea of being set aside for holy use (i.e., The Tent of Meeting, all of the utensils used in worship, the altar, the laver, the candle holders, the Ark, all the Priests, etc.) Sanctification is a status first and foremost and something that is done to the object being sanctified. The Old Testament Jews were set apart, sanctified as God’s holy, special ambassadors to the world. Israel, both the people and the land, were set apart from the other nations with special boundaries, special clothes, special food, special rules. What they did with that did not change their status because, ‘God’s gifts and calling are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11:29) The main gift was the Messiah, born of a people who were not a people before they were called. The Jews were to serve as a backdrop for the incarnation and they fulfilled that purpose.

We, too, as the new Israel (Jews and Gentiles together in the church as God’s ambassadors) have been set apart. We, too, have a calling and purpose (I Peter 2:10).

That purpose is to be a backdrop for the Cross of Christ, demonstrating His love to our neighbors and telling them the Good News of Jesus’ victory over sin and death for them. Along with our new identity as chosen, set apart people, acting in accordance with that new identity reflects well on the One who chose us and sanctified us for the job.

Now, this part, our actions in keeping with our status, is what most Christians usually think of when they think of the term ‘Sanctification’.

However, it is interesting to note that most of the passages that mention the word for ‘sanctify’ do not speak of it like it is some sort of school assignment to be turned in, contradicting the many churches which emphasize the opposite; churches where you go every Sunday to get your homework.

Out of the twenty-eight occurrences of the verb that gets translated as ‘sanctify’ or ‘consecrate’ (the Greek word for ‘make holy‘) in the New Testament and that apply to our topic, almost all are in the passive voice. 
When they are in the active voice, Jesus is performing the action, not we.

In other words, sanctification in these passages is something that is done to us.

Check out this selection from Jesus’ ‘High Priestly Prayer’ in John 17:
… I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (vv. 15-19)
To get the Hebraic flavor of the idea of sanctification as it is expressed in the New Testament, check out the book of Hebrews. The verb for ‘sanctify’ is used and the concept explicated more completely in the book of Hebrews than in any other place in the New Testament. For example:
For the one who sanctifies (hagiazōn | ἁγιάζων | pres act ptcp nom sg masc) and those who are sanctified (hagiazomenoi | ἁγιαζόμενοι | pres pass ptcp nom pl masc) are all of one origin. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers (Heb. 2:11)
For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkled ashes of a heifer, sanctify (hagiazei | ἁγιάζει | pres act ind 3 sg) those who have been ceremonially defiled so that their flesh is purified, (Heb. 9:13)
By that will we have been made holy (hēgiasmenoi | ἡγιασμένοι | perf pass ptcp nom pl masc) through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb. 10:10)
because by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being made holy (hagiazomenous | ἁγιαζομένους | pres pass ptcp acc pl masc). (Heb. 10:14)
So Jesus also suffered outside the city gate in order to sanctify (hagiasē | ἁγιάσῃ | aor act subj 3 sg) the people through his own blood. (Heb. 13:12)
You get the idea.

What about ‘aggressive sanctification?’ Let’s get to the part where I can do something, eh?

Most of the stuff that has to do with moral directives for us (the last chapters of almost all the Pauline Epistles for instance) deal mainly (on the ‘sin’ side) with gross visible sin that might drive someone from hearing the Gospel — having sex with one’s father’s wife, for example. Even today, this behavior would be egregious and Paul says the guy who is doing this stuff should be disassociated from the church in the most extreme terms, because his actions skew the image of Christ in the church so badly as to make everyone else ineffective, killing evangelism. ‘Pagans do better than this!’ Paul says (I Cor. 5:1). Yet, putting this guy outside is also done with the idea that the clarity produced by separation will, in the end, save him too (I Cor. 5:5). Make no mistake, the Holy Spirit has been known to even bench people (Acts 5:1-11) if what they are doing messes with the fidelity of the witness of the Church, ‘that is why… a number of you have fallen asleep’ (I Cor. 11:30). Sabotage will be dealt with when it comes to the proclamation of the Gospel. Better they go to Heaven where they can’t do any more damage.

The instructions for ‘Good Works’ mainly have to do with hospitality, being a good host, a good spouse, a good parent, being polite, doing good, honorable work to support yourself, supporting the Gospel financially, being faithful and… singing.

All of of Paul’s admonitions involve some sort of action: don’t go to court against other people in the church — it’s embarrassing (I Cor. 6:1-11), don’t go to pagan temples and eat their food if it could wreck the witness of the church (I Cor. 8, Rom. 14), don’t say nasty things to others or hurt people with rough talk (Eph. 5:4), be winsome (I Cor. 9:22), don’t use this great freedom you have in Christ to burden others who think that what you do is not approved. Take the time to correct their error … gently. Always be working to help people you perceive as weaker than you and don’t rejoice or lord over their self-imposed prisons (Rom. 14 again). At least put the effort in to trying to let them out (specifically Rom. 14:16). Don’t be a braggart (I Cor. 4:6). Don’t be an ass (I Tim. 1:20)! Be a good host (Heb. 13:2). Sing great songs about Jesus to each other (Eph. 5:19) — someone outside might hear you and be converted (I Cor. 14:24-25). Try to be nice to people (Eph 4:32); live at peace as much as you are able (Rom. 12:18). Don’t have sex with everybody — that doesn’t reflect your calling (Eph. 5:3)! Don’t have sex with your dad’s wife — that’s a bad play (I Cor. 5:1). Be humble (Phil. 2:2-5), et cetera.

Basically, don’t make the church of Christ a byword by your actions.

The whole enchilada is external for St. Paul, something that can be seen or witnessed so as to bear fruit in others. None of his strategies for backing up the Good News with good actions involve an inward spiritual journey; The examination of the heart, if you are honest, is a dark labyrinth, and the little glowing light you find in there at the end of the tunnel, contrary to our brothers in Eastern Orthodoxy, is probably a train (sorry for the cliché, but it’s true). St. Paul would never hang anything so important as sanctification on something so treacherous as a spiritual inventory. He would hang everything on the Cross.

And when we screw up, which we often do, when we don’t act according to our new identity, when we sin in some way, we confess it, and Jesus forgives our sins and cleanses us from all of it, even the ones we don’t know to confess (Romans 8:28, I John 3:20). We have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One, and He is the propitiation for ALL our sins (I John 2:1-2). They are washed away with the words of absolution and we’re clean again, like utensils in the Tent of Meeting or the Temple, properly cleaned and ready again for holy use.

Free to Fail Until You Die in Christ

Paul gives a message in his letters promising more freedom than most will believe. Even many Christians find the implications of what it means to be truly free in Christ (‘everything is lawful for me…’ (I Cor. 6:12) a dangerous notion and will marshal any passage as a remedy to balance this freedom for fear the whole thing will spin out of control (usually verses taken from James which is one of the reasons why Luther and Lutherans often go buggy about James). The emphasis on the idea of a progressive sanctification commonly taught in most churches is the result. Jesus saves you, but he will be waiting with some sort of stick if you mess it up; even though you are saved, you will be weighed in the scales at the Last Judgment. Some churches have built-in control issues (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).

In extreme cases, churches which emphasize holy living can become what I call ‘weed-wacker churches’, trying to clear out the tares before the Lord’s appointed harvest (Matt 13:24-30; Matt 13:36-43). Discipline may or may not be a mark of the church (we Lutherans don’t believe it is), but we’ve all seen our share of the marks churches which emphasize ‘holiness’ leave on abused Christians.

I think what Paul wants to do is get people to act like who they are in Christ, primarily to facilitate getting the Gospel out. When we manage this, it complements a good witness; when we don’t, it can muddle our message to the world. Paul is like a football coach encouraging his bedraggled team and strategizing with them how to get the next down or make a field goal. When the goal of the game is winning others for Christ, the whole game should hopefully become a joy. Sometimes a painful joy, but a joy nonetheless.

To me, the term ‘Progressive Sanctification’ can be misleading. It gives the idea that we can do some sort of bar-graph or Gantt Chart to measure our (or someone else’s) growth in grace. I figure mine would probably parallel the recent stock market fluctuations if, indeed, it could be charted.

The idea of ‘progressing’, cleaning-up our own act and ‘getting right with God’ appeals to the Old Adam (case in point: Benjamin Franklin on attempting moral pefection). We prefer our spiritual life to look like a collection of episodes from This Old House. Renovation is the thing. Jesus is more into Extreme Makeover: Home Edition where the old house takes a dirt nap first before any really cool stuff happens.

I prefer the term ‘cyclical sanctification’ over ‘progressive sanctification’ to describe the Christian life in this 

I’m using ‘Cyclical’ in this sense: We screw up. Eventually, we come to a realization that we screwed up, probably by the hearing of Scripture, and we flee to Christ for forgiveness which He gives freely. The Pastor absolves us and hopefully we do a better job the next week… right.

We go through the whole thing again the following week — lather, rinse, repeat. And the week after that. Variations on a theme the following week. You see the pattern? Do we make progress and break out of the cycle? Maybe, but doing better at living the Christian life is completely subjective! St. Paul says, ‘I don’t even judge myself’! (I Cor. 4:3-4). How would you measure your ‘progress’ anyway? By the results it produces? By the way you feel about yourself? By what others say about you? None of these are reliable methods for determining how well you are doing.

I say leave the ‘how well you are doing’ part to Jesus knowing that He planned out the whole thing for you and it will turn out better than your wildest hopes — better than anything you or I can imagine (Matt. 25:37-40, I Cor. 15:35-58). For He who began a good work in you is able to complete it (Phil. 1:6).

And anything we do, even if it is the best thing that anyone has ever seen, is not worthy to be compared to what we have in store for us in glory (how can we not share this!). Paul compares the difference between life now and resurrected life after we are glorified to the difference between a tiny, insignificant seed and the awesomeness which springs from it.
What you sow does not come to life unless it dies… So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body… (I Cor. 15:35-44).
It is best to look to Christ and realize that your life and everything you do and say from this day to forever is hidden in Him (Col. 3:3-4). Your whole life is hidden in Jesus; all your worst sins and all your best (probably not so good) works. He is able to sanctify you. The whole of you is washed, now it’s just down to the feet and keeping them clean.

Jesus demonstrated that he was not above washing feet (John 13:1-17). He told the Disciples that they should do it for each other. I don’t think this is just something that should be done ceremonially in the church, as Anglicans and Catholics still practice this on Maundy Thursday (the whole Gospel of John is, in part, about how we look at things in an earthly way (Jesus washing feet) and Jesus is constantly pointing to a heavenly reality (Jesus as High Priest cleaning the dirt of use off of a consecrated instrument, His Apostle Peter)). For us as readers/hearers of this passage, I think it has to do with absolution, getting rid of the road grime of the world by pronouncing forgiveness on each other in Jesus’ name.

Bottom line: Satan would have us spend all our time measuring our good works and nervously playing interior decorator for the Jesus who is knocking at the door of our heart. St. Paul would have us not worrying about that sort of thing at all, giving us that time back to focus on Jesus, the great gifts and consolations He gives to us, and also focus on others for His name’s sake.

Let’s face it, we are in Romans 7 with St. Paul for the duration. Being a Christian is a struggle. You can call it defeatist, but I rejoice in saying with the Apostle, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). What a Doxology!

 — A point of grammar for all those indispensable grammarians out there: with active verbs, you have the subject doing the action and the direct object receiving the action. With passive verbs, the passive subject receives the action and the passive object does the action. Hey, at least I looked it up, o.k.?
— Also, I was unable to give proper attribution on the picture. If anyone knows the title of it or the name of the artist, I would appreciate it.

By Steve B

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Justin Esposito said…
You should be charging a subscription to these posts. Solid gold. As a Reformed-type with strong Lutheran overtones in my reading of Scripture (think T. Tchividjian), I am more than blessed to see a multiplicity of corrective posts like this one. I am counseling a doubting brother who has been battered by his Baptist/holiness tradition. The grievous wounds of behavior modification assurance are deep, festering, and abhorrent. Thanks for this lucid treatment.